I had seen the Peter Jackson’s movies when they came out, and I still found the books to open whole new levels of appreciating the work.
As I read through the trilogy during the Corona Lockdown, the spirit of the traveller in me is living through the names, places, history and maps.
The world of Middle-Earth is immersive with its names indicating a history beyond the immediate time-frame of the main story. A lot of names of places mean something, or named after something.
For example, take Mordor. The other regions of Middle-Earth are Gondor and Eriador. Hence, “Dor” clearly means something like region or realm.
South-Asia and South-East Asia have various places which end with -Pur or some derivation of “Pur”. Khairpur, Jodhpur, Nagpur, Tripura, Thiruvananthapuram and Singapore. Pur comes from the Proto-Indo-European Puluh meaning Fort or Stronghold. It is also cognate with the Greek “Polis” – and words which come with it like Acropolis and Metropolis.
What do the places Edinburgh (Scotland), Strasbourg (France), Nuremberg (Germany), Gothenburg (Sweden) and St. Petersburg (Russia) have in common? They are of the form XYZ-Burg or some derivative of the Germanic word Burg, which means Stronghold, Fort or Protection. Burg is also cognate with “Bury” of Salisbury, Bibury etc.
What about Mor? The part. ‘Mor’ appears to be associated with evil. Morgoth was the name of the previous Dark Lord before Sauron. Minas Morgul – the Dark tower. ‘Mor’ means ‘Dark’ and Mordor would mean ‘Dark Realm’.
This is not far from real-world history. The term ‘Mor’ in Spanish and Portuguese refers to dark-complexioned people from Northern Africa (often with connotations of prejudice). It is likely this word came from “Mauri” people in Africa and became associated with Muslim communities. The term “Moreno” also commonly used means dark.
The names of places in Middle-Earth don’t just have meanings but also drift according to history and across cultures.
An interesting form of this is Anglicization especially among common-speech speaking Shire dwellers. For example, one of their rivers is introduced as Brandywine which sounds charmingly English. But it is also revealed that the original name was Baranduin in the ancient Eleven tongue similar to other rivers like Anduin and Celduin.
The city of Portland in Oregon, United States was built on the banks of River Willamette. The name Willamette sounds English and leads one to think it might have been named after some European colonial. However, it is not. The name comes from Wal-lamt – used by several Native-American communities before the Europeans arrived, and Willamette is an Anglicization of Wal-lamt.
Similarly, a river on East Coast of the USA was originally named after Baron De La Warr, but the name was Anglicized to Delaware and hence the state Delaware.
Lothlorien, the mysterious forest-city of the elven-folk is known by multiple names – Laurelindorenan, Lindorinand, Lorinand and the simpler Lorien. While each name has a different meaning, they all have similar sounds.
A lot of real-world places also have been known by similar sounding names as in olden days, and travelers often adapted certain sounds to the nearest meaningful words in their languages.
For example, London began as a Roman fortress in Britain. It had several old names, like Lundeinjon in Celtic, Lundeiniu in France and Londinium in Latin. And for simplicity, Lunden or Londin and Roman Londoners were called “Londiniensi”.
The two major writing systems included in Lord of the Rings are the Cirth Script and the Tengwar Script. The Cirth Script is similar to Runes – often found on Rhunestones made in the pre-Christian Europe. Their distinguishing feature is the use of very straight lines. The Tengwar script, in contrast, look similar to cursive English, Hebrew or Arabic with a lot of rounded lines.
The straightness or roundness of characters in a script depends on writing materials in places where it evolved. Take a look at Brahmi script in ancient India which evolved into two distinct categories.
The Pallava-Grantha branch is used today in Southern India and South-East Asia. Notice how a lot of effort has been to avoid straight lines. This is because certain types of tree-barks, leaves or parchments are sensitive to straight lines and tear when pressure is applied with straight strokes.
On the other hand, Northern Indian and Tibetian Scripts – which come from Nagari, often emphasize straight lines over curved ones. Straight lines are often useful for carving into hard materials like rock, metal, wood and bone.
This is why runes are straight – they are often found carved on rhunestones. Now, what about the Cirth Script in Lord of the Rings? We are told they are used by Dwarf communities. And Dwarf folks deal with mines, work in rock-caves and make gold coins, in other words deal with hard materials, and of course, favoring the use of a Runic script.
In this post, I focussed on language. I am planning to make more addressing the history of cultures, migrations and the geography of the middle earth and how its political factions mirror the real-world.
Since reading the trilogy I’ve come to truly appreciate Tolkien’s understanding of language and throughout the series I saw a lot of similarities to the Welsh language.
That’s so cool, I would love to know more. I can definitely see Tolkiens’ love for Old Britain in his work. I’ve also heard its influenced by Beowulf.